Sex, Lies and Sales

Most salespeople have a complicated relationship with the truth. It’s not hard to understand why, but most of us shy away from truth-telling. Too bad for us. It’s not only misguided—it actually doesn’t work. (And don’t worry, we’ll get to the sex part later).

Take James—a smart, personable man in his 40s. He approached me after a talk I gave and said:

I like all your stuff about how truth-telling increases trust and how that helps sales. But I just can’t do that. I changed industries just over a year ago and I’m competing against guys who have several decades in the business. If that gets out there, I’m dead meat. I just can’t afford to be that truthful.

I’m sympathetic to James. First of all, he’s far from wrong; many buyers place a premium on experience and he’ll lose at least some of those customers. Second, it’s very real. Salespeople operate in the ultimate meritocracy—you can run but you can’t hide from performance.

And yet: James is a liar.

Don’t get me wrong: he feels bad about it. He’s not proud of it. He wishes there were another way and he’ll wiggle quite a bit to avoid having to tell an overt lie.

But see, that wiggling is the lie itself. You’re kidding yourself if you think letting others mislead themselves is materially different from lying.

Lying Destroys Customer Centricity

Think about why James would lie. Think about why you lie. Almost always it’s to get something you don’t have, or to keep something you’ve got. Both of which, let’s face it, are entirely about you. It’s usually fear that leads us to lie—fear that we won’t get what we want if we don’t step in and give the scales a little help.

Companies and their salespeople love to say they are “customer-centric.” But you cannot claim to be customer-centric, and at the same time tell lies to enhance your own interests. And that’s not a question of logic, it’s a question of human behavior—people profoundly distrust those who mislead them.

Why Truth Is More Practical Than Lying

There’s one version of the truth and an infinite number of non-true versions of the same facts. Life is a lot simpler if you only have to remember one version of truth. No more keeping track of various stories, managing selective access to information, and keeping track of white lie cover stories. It all gets very simple when you make friends with the truth.

More importantly, people—including customers—are drawn to those who value truth-telling over snagging the sale. You can trust those people. You do not have to evaluate every statement they make. The natural human response, when we meet people like this, is to trust them. And trust is a powerful driver of buying behavior.

Forget ethics and morals—look at your own numbers. Do you make more sales, gain longer-term customers and more repeat business by:

a. Tweaking the facts to improve the odds in every sale, or by

b. Always telling the truth, believing that honesty will be more persuasive and will attract more future business.

There’s no question in my mind. The paradox of Trust-based Selling is that you best achieve your ends by helping others achieve theirs. Success is not a goal; it’s a byproduct.

To those who say:

“But Charlie, you don’t understand, the vast majority of salespeople out there don’t do that; they bend the truth and work for every transaction and would never give up an edge.”

I say:

You are right. I suspect the majority of salespeople have made themselves into fear-driven liars and have compromised their own success. But the majority is tragically mistaken. You have a chance to benefit comparatively by being a truth-teller. Have faith that customers vastly prefer honest salespeople and will vote with their wallets.

The really great salespeople—the minority—already know this. It’s the average and under-performing majority who don’t.

If you’re still wondering what this has to do with sex, think one-night stands vs. relationships. Lies work better with the first but they’re unsatisfying, more expensive and require endless new lead streams. You choose.

Is Sales Efficiency Killing Your Sales?


A search on Google for the following sales-related terms shows:

• Sales force management 315,000
• Sales force effectiveness 113,000
• Sales force productivity 44,500
• Sales force performance 37,200
• Sales force efficiency 28,100
• Sales force compensation 15,300
• Sales force motivation 6,150
• Sales force measurement 577
• Sales force relationships 244
• Sales force trust 33

The numbers alone suggest a certain sense of priorities in the world’s interest in sales. In the broadest sense, let’s just say the reigning focus seems highly seller-focused.

Here’s a quote from what I would suggest is a fairly typical piece on selling:

XYZ has developed proprietary approaches to measuring and maximizing salesforce efficiency. Sales managers can learn, quantitatively, how their best people invest available selling time, including a measurement of expected sales dollars per sales call. This knowledge is used to improve the efficiency of others in the salesforce. Simple tools can tell the sales manager what the expected outcome would be of adding one additional sales person, of getting each salesperson to make one more call per week, and so on.

[Our] model addresses several common sales planning flaws:
* Salespeople call on too many accounts, and therefore don’t have enough time to call on those accounts often enough to be successful.
* Salespeople don’t spend enough time with the accounts that provide the best opportunity for growth.
* Salespeople spend too much time calling on low potential accounts.
* Salespeople don’t realize how precious few sales calls they have to invest [sic] each year.

Let’s refine our statement of focus in selling. The usual treatment of sales goes beyond just “self-focused.” It also defines sales heavily in terms of return on investment, and of processes. The solution to higher ROI is often found in changing processes.

For a more academic example, see a 2006 Harvard Business Review Article, The New Science of Sales Force Productivity, by Ledingham, Kovac and Simon:

Today’s most successful sales leaders are taking a more scientific approach. Savvy managers are reshaping their tactics in response to changing markets. They are reaching out to new customers in innovative ways. And they are increasing productivity by helping the reps they already have make the most of their skills and resources.
Leaders who take a scientific approach to sales force effectiveness have learned to use four levers to boost their reps’ productivity in a predictable and manageable way.
1. They systematically target their firms’ offerings, matching the right products with the right customers.
2. They optimize the automation, tools, and procedures at their disposal, providing reps with the support they need to boost sales.
3. They analyze and manage their reps’ performance, measuring both internal processes and results to determine their teams’ strengths and weaknesses.
4. They pay close attention to sales force deployment—how well sales, support, marketing, and delivery resources are matched to customers.

What is remarkable in all these lists is the virtual absence of the “R” word: relationships.

There is “scientific” (read “quantitative analysis”) study of products, automation, tools, procedures, internal processes, results, and deployment;

There is general agreement that the end result is to be judged in financial terms (ROI—effectiveness), which can be decomposed into various ratios (efficiency in general);

Mirroring this self-absorbed perspective of both design and outcome is the treatment of the customer. Almost all sales models are based on a single-transaction—with the usual “feedback” arrow saying “return to beginning and start over."

Try substituting “relationship” into this self-oriented, mechanistic and transactional mindset and there is only one kind of relationship it applies to: a one-night stand, repeated endlessly, with only the names changing.

There is no forward momentum in a series of one-night stands. No growth, no development, no connection—and no relationship. (I’m not knocking one-night stands, by the way, or saying they are "wrong;" I’m just saying call them what they are).

There is nothing wrong with counting sales dollars as a pretty good indicator of sales success. And it’s natural to want to dig deeper. But if all the digging is focused on ourselves, our processes, our metrics; and if all the relevant timeframes are shorter and shorter; and if we fall prey to the Skinnerian belief that you must shorten the time between action and monetary reward for the rats salespeople—then we conspire to reap what we sow—the one-night stand.

Great short-term performance doesn’t come from short-term selfish, transactional management. Great short-term performance is simply one part of a longer success story that comes from a long-term, relationship-driven concern for the customer.